Thriller Corner: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson #BookReview

What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love? One woman struggles to choose between her honor and her heart in this enthralling espionage drama that deftly hops between New York and West Africa.

It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, she’s overlooked for every high-profile squad, and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Thomas is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving over the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. Yes, even though a furious part of her suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent.

In the year that follows, Marie will observe Thomas, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

Inspired by true events — Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara” — this novel knits together a gripping spy thriller, a heartbreaking family drama, and a passionate romance. This is a face of the Cold War you’ve never seen before, and it introduces a powerful new literary voice.

Title: American Spy | Author: Lauren Wilkinson | Publisher: Random House | Pages: 292 | ISBN: 9780812998955 | Publication date: 12th February 2019 | Source: Self-purchased

‘American Spy’ plays a bit like Le Carre. It’s deeper than the average thriller, political, and populated with convincing characters with credible and intriguing motivations. It’s also interesting because its heroine (and author) are black women, something that’s unusual in spy fiction. Despite its many strengths I found that it lacked tension and as a result it failed as a thriller. That’s not to say it isn’t worth your time though.

It starts strongly, with its narrator and heroine, Marie Mitchell, fighting off an intruder into her home in the 1990s and then fleeing with her twin sons. The rest of the book is told in flashback, an extended memoir, written by Marie to her sons, explaining the events that led up to the attack. The action takes place in the 1980s, when Marie was a skilled FBI agent, who was recruited by a shadowy CIA agent to befriend and seduce a visiting African leader, Thomas Sankara. Thomas is the communist president of Burkina Faso, and someone the US authorities are keen to undermine. The fact that the politically savvy Marie, a black woman operating in a white man’s world, comes to sympathise with her target is no surprise, Lauren Wilkinson manages to make their relationship a believable one though, and Marie’s internal struggles work well.

The format of the book helps, giving the author every reason to allow Marie to be as introspective as possible. The books is more an examination of love, motherhood and loyalty than it does a spy novel. It succeeds well at that, but the action and the kind of tradecraft that I enjoy in espionage fiction is definitely lacking. The book has a lot to say about the aggressive interventionism of US foreign policy in the 70s and 80s too, and I found those elements interesting. They didn’t, unfortunately, overcome the lack of narrative drive though. ‘American Spy’ ends up being a book that is more interesting than it is enjoyable. It contains a lot of food for thought, but fails to make that into a really satisfying meal.


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